Friday, December 15, 2017

Canada’s Conscription Election: One Hundred Years Ago

During the First World War, on December 17, 1917, Canadians elected a federal government that backed the decision of the government of Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden to conscript men to serve overseas in the armed forces.  The election bitterly divided French speaking Canadians from English speaking Canadians, leaving scars on the country that have never fully healed.

French speaking Canadians viewed the war, which began in 1914, very differently than did most of their fellow countrymen.  For them, the war was seen as a British imperial undertaking, leaving most of them lukewarm about volunteering to fight in it.

By  1917, with Canadian casualties soaring and voluntary recruitment waning—130,000 had been killed or maimed--Prime Minister Borden concluded that the government would have to resort to conscription to maintain the armed forces at full strength. 

In August 1917, the Military Service Act became law, opening the way for men to be conscripted for service on the western front in Europe.

The Borden government turned down the proposal of Liberal leader and former Prime minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier to hold a national referendum on the conscription issue.  The Liberal Party proceeded to split with pro conscription Liberals deserting to Borden who recruited a number of Liberals into his cabinet. With Liberals on board, Borden transformed his government from Conservative to Unionist.

The Laurier Liberals fought the bitter election of 1917 in opposition to conscription.   They carried 62 out of 65 seats in Quebec.  However, the Unionists swept English-speaking Canada and thereby retained power, winning 153 seats to 82 for the Liberals.

This enormously consequential Canadian election was conducted under altered electoral rules.  Those who had migrated to Canada from enemy countries since 1902 lost their right to vote and the close female relatives of members of the armed forces serving in Europe gained the right to vote.  It was the first time that any women in Canada voted in a federal election. 

George Etienne Cartier, the Quebec leader, who had been John A. Macdonald’s partner in the struggle for Confederation in the 1860s, had predicted that since Canada would have two major political parties, Conservatives and Liberals, with a large number of French Canadians in both, that politics would never align the English against the French on a critical issue.  Conscription proved his prediction wrong. 

The election of December 1917 divided the country along linguistic lines with almost every Anglophone riding in the country electing a pro-conscription candidate, while nearly every Francophone riding elected an anti-conscription Liberal.

Four days after the election, on December 21, 1917, in an atmosphere of raw antagonism, Joseph-Napoleon Francoeur, a Liberal member of the Quebec Legislative Assembly drafted a resolution calling for the secession of Quebec from Canada.  The resolution received huge attention in newspapers across the country.  Quebec’s Liberal Premier Lomer Gouin finally managed to convince Francoeur to withdraw the resolution, so that this Quebec separatist resolution was never put to a vote. 

In the spring of 1918, anti-conscription riots broke out in Quebec City. The Borden government dispatched troops to the city and anti-conscription crowds filled the streets in protest.  In response to shots being fired at the soldiers from concealed positions, the troops opened fire on the crowds driving them to flight.  Official figures put the number killed at five, with no soldiers among the dead.

In the province of Quebec, thousands of men who were conscripted hid out in the countryside, some of them in armed camps.  In English Canada as well, there was resistance to the draft.  Thousands of men from rural areas failed to report when they were called up. 

In the end, in part as a consequence of exemptions and resistance to the draft, only twenty-five thousand of those conscripted were actually sent to the front.

The Canadian armed forces performed magnificently during the war.  But if Canadians fought well, the political leaders of the country served them poorly, leaving the country scarred and divided.  The conscription crisis placed a question mark in the minds of many Quebeckers about whether Canada or Quebec was their true homeland.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Obstruction of Justice Under Wraps: the Dred Scott Case

 U.S. President Donald Trump repeatedly tweets that he is the victim of a “witch hunt”.  Special counsel Robert Mueller is conducting an investigation into the Trump administration’s dealings with Russia and he may be investigating whether the president hnmself has obstructed justice.  If Mueller concludes that Trump is guilty of obstruction, the next step would almost certainly be that some members of the House of Representatives would draft articles of impeachment.

In some cases, a presidential obstruction of justice can be hidden from public view, while still having immense consequences. One such case reached its climax on the eve of the American Civil War.

In1857, U.S. President-elect James Buchanan secretly interfered with how the Supreme Court would rule on the status of a slave by the name of Dred Scott. The U.S. was descending into deepening conflict as a consequence of the twinned issues of slavery and the status of slavery in territories of the U.S. that were not yet states.

Dred Scott’s owner, a doctor from Missouri, had taken him for a time to a territory within the U.S. where slavery was illegal.

Following the death of his owner in 1843, Dred Scott tried to gain freedom from his new owner, the doctor’s widow. A Missouri Court reached a verdict in Scott’s favour, ruling that a slave who had been taken to free territory should be free. Scott’s new owner appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which in turn ruled in her favour. 

Eventually, Dred Scott appealed his case to the Supreme Court of the United States.

James Buchanan, a pro slavery Democrat from Pennsylvania, became convinced that the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Scott case had to be rigged to settle the explosive issue of slavery in the territories once and for all. 

The court, at the time, had five southern judges among its nine members.  Buchanan wanted to ensure that should the verdict go against Scott, it would not be seen merely as a decision on behalf of the slave owning south.  The president-elect wrote secretly to Supreme Court Justice Robert Grier of Pennsylvania to urge him to side with the southerners in the Scott case.  Grier did as he was asked and wrote back to Buchanan acknowledging that he was well aware of the impropriety of what was being done.  “We will not let any others of our brethren know,” he wrote.  He concluded that what had happened was “contrary to our usual practice.”  It was obstruction of justice, pure and simple.

Then, a few days before Buchanan was inaugurated in March 1857, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roger B. Taney, who had been born into a wealthy slave owning family, told the president-elect, in another blatant violation of the separation between the judiciary and the executive branch, that the verdict was going to go against Dred Scott. Armed with this prior knowledge, Buchanan stated disingenuously in his inaugural address that when the verdict in the Scott case was announced in a few days, “in common with all good citizens, I shall cheerfully submit.”

The victim in this shabby deal was a slave, fighting for his freedom.  In the court’s majority opinion, Chief Justice Taney proclaimed that blacks were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”  He concluded that the rights proclaimed in the U.S. Declaration of Independence of 1776 were not intended to apply to black slaves.

But the verdict, so improperly reached, generated a storm of protest across the North. Abraham Lincoln, then a rising Illinois politician declared that he believed “the Dred Scott decision is erroneous.”  In his analysis of the case, Lincoln pointed ahead to arguments he would make in his Gettysburg Address as president of the United States during the Civil War.  On the meaning of the Declaration of Independence, he said its authors had considered that all men were created equal, equal in “ ‘certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ This they said, and this they meant.”

Buchanan’s obstruction fanned the flames of conflict. The Dred Scott verdict helped drive the U.S. into the war that would lead to the abolition of slavery.

Saturday, February 11, 2017


U.S. President Donald Trump is thin-skinned, narcissistic and obsesses over peripheral matters to a shocking extent.

There is method in his madness, however. Together with his alter ego and chief advisor Steve Bannon, Trump has conceived a new world order that is deeply at odds with the prevailing American global system.

Since 1945, America’s political leadership has developed an international, liberal global order with the United States at its centre. The system privileged the American dollar and American corporations, backing up this “free world” order with the might of the U.S. military, on which Washington spent more than the next ten countries combined. The purpose of the system was to keep America at the core and to push the Soviet Union and its dependencies to the periphery. The struggle was ideological and geo-strategic.

In the end, of course, the Soviet system collapsed. The ideological threat from Moscow was gone and Russia was reduced to being an authoritarian capitalist state, whose only claim to global power was its vast nuclear arsenal and lethal missile delivery system. Under Vladimir Putin’s brutal regime, Russia has clawed back some of its regional power as seen in its seizure of Crimea, its assault on eastern Ukraine, its menacing posture vis a vis Poland and the Baltic States, and further afield its alliance with the Assad regime in Syria.

The American response to Russia has been to keep its own alliance system intact and to continue to preside over the liberal international order.

That is, until now. Trump and Bannon have an alternative system in mind. As the front man in the duo, Trump never comes out and presents the complete alternative so that it can be grasped systematically. But he has been very open about the pieces of the puzzle. To understand the whole, we have to fit the following pieces together.

* Trump has declared that the United States has been overly generous with other countries and that this has undermined America’s economic strength, productive capacity and ability to create and sustain jobs at home. In part, this is a response to the economic distress felt by people in the “rust belt” states. Even more it is a visceral reaction against the rise of minorities to an ever more prominent place in American society. By the middle of this century, it is estimated that Latinos could constitute twenty-five per cent of the U.S. population, African Americans fifteen per cent, and Asians, indigenous peoples, Pacific Islanders and other immigrants ten per cent. This would reduce non-Hispanic whites, the traditional core of the American national project, to merely half the population of the United States.

Trump has combined economic outrage with xenophobic attacks on Mexicans and Muslims.

* A second piece was Trump’s repeated expressions of admiration for Vladimir Putin. He made it clear both before and after his inauguration that he would pursue closer relations with Moscow and would not be averse to dismantling sanctions against Russia.

* A third piece, closely linked to the second, has been Trump’s statements in support of the United Kingdom’s decision to secede from the European Union. He has said that it would not surprise him if other EU countries followed Britain’s example. He has criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her government’s policy of welcoming huge numbers of Syrian refugees to Germany. In addition to disparaging the EU, a reversal of the position of previous U.S. presidents, Trump has denigrated NATO as a critical pillar in the defence policy of the United States.

Friendly to Russia and negative toward the EU and NATO—these are critical pieces of the Trump puzzle.

Following the inauguration Trump was quick to carry through on the xenophobic elements of his program. He announced that the much-touted wall along the Mexican border would be built and would ultimately be paid for by Mexico. So nakedly insulting was Trump on the issue—he even hinted that the U.S. could send troops down there to deal with “bad hombres”—that Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto cancelled a planned trip to Washington. Then came the emergency 90-day ban prohibiting citizens of seven majority Muslim countries from entering the United States. On this issue, Trump has been blocked so far in the courts.

America’s liberal internationalism has always given precedence to the American national interest. However, as a feature of that system, the U.S. established an economic order in which most countries had to play by a common set of rules much of the time. This was the price, the United States paid for the enormous benefits it enjoyed as the global hegemonic power. But the world-view of Donald Trump and Steve Bannon holds that this system has proven too costly to America.

Assembling the pieces of the puzzle, we can see the new world order espoused by the two.

An entente with Russia would allow the world’s two leading nuclear powers to seek naked dominance in their respective spheres. Russia would be allowed a freer hand in its “near abroad” with dire potential consequences for Ukraine and other eastern European countries bordering on Russia. In its own much larger sphere, the United States would be free to pursue its economic, political and military goals without much regard for the interests of so-called allied powers. The guise of defending the “free world” against Russia would be abandoned along with the rules based trading system of the WTO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and regional trade blocs, erected under American leadership. Trump has already ditched the Trans Pacific Partnership and has often said that NAFTA is the worst trade deal ever established.

Trump and Bannon would prefer a new and more openly brutal system of bilateral relations between the U.S. and other countries. Bilateralism would allow the U.S. to exert maximum pressure on trading partners, one by one.

Such a global arrangement would not be the first time in history that major powers have made common cause in pursuit of their own interests. In the late 19th century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck fostered such an alliance among Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. It was an unstable system and ultimately it collapsed.

The point is that Trump and Bannon are aiming at such a fundamental reordering of the world. Whether they would want to include China in what would become a League of the Three Empires is not yet clear. Initially Trump hinted at stirring up trouble with China over the status of Taiwan. However, in a recent telephone conversation with Xi Jinping, described as “extremely cordial” Trump told the Chinese President that he intended to honour the One China Policy.

As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. The Trump-Bannon New World Order cannot be constructed in a day. It will be fiercely resisted along the way. Those who are resisting it will be enormously better prepared if they understand the Trump-Bannon conception as a whole and are not merely distracted by its bits and pieces.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Canadian Choice: Fundamental Change or Hard Right Populism

In the era of Brexit and Trump, Canadians face an increasingly clear choice between fundamental change and hard right populism.

Canada is one of the major countries in the West where the political centre has held, much to the benefit of Canadians. But the same forces that have driven the rise of the xenophobic right in the United States, the United Kingdom, France and other countries are at play here.

We have some time to adapt, but time is running out. The temptation to muddle through in the hope that the Trump administration will be satisfied with gouging Mexico and won’t try to take a bite out of us on trade, investment and taxes is foolish. We risk being further marginalized as suppliers of primary products at the same time as our industrial base is ever more hollowed out.

What is driving the collapse of the political centre is the crisis of the global neo-liberal capitalism of our age.

For the past several decades, the majority of men and women in the labour force in Canada and abroad have seen little or no rise in their incomes (adjusted for inflation), at the same time as their security of employment grows increasingly precarious. Meanwhile, those who have presided over the present global division of labour have enriched themselves more lavishly than any class of rulers in the history of the world.

To put it simply, the leverage of those who control capital over those who sell their labour to earn a living has expanded dramatically.

Though the rise of the xenophobic far right, in response to this state of affairs, has received most of the attention in the mainstream media, a wave of radical politics is sweeping across the developed world. Potentially, this wave can provide the effective antidote to the extremism on the right. The young are at the epicentre of this political surge. In response to the socio-economic conditions they face and the dire problems that confront the world, they have evolved a unique political outlook.

The negative consequences of the vast and growing inequality of our age are being concentrated on the young. They are the victims of the uneven ways the widening class divide affects different generations.

Compared with those who came before, most notably the baby boomers, the generation of the millennials, aged twenty to thirty-five, are grappling with the effects of inequality.

As one man in his early twenties wrote to me: “The millennials are acutely aware of the ever worsening material conditions they face.” From their forebears “millennials have come to realize that at one point in the past it was not typical to have to change jobs every two years, or to be completely locked out of the home ownership market due to ridiculously high home prices, and to have to bankrupt oneself to get a post-secondary education.” One apt term being used to describe the young is “Generation Rent.”

For the young, as well, climate change is imbedded in their reality. Stark changes in weather patterns are part of the public conversation in a way that was certainly not true for earlier generations.

To break with a failed system, Canadians need a wholly new outlook on how to make Canada work for the large majority of the population. No less is required than the launching of an economy, constructed around new green industries, and green energy systems, that will transform the way we live and work. Rebuilding cities and transportation systems will be central to this. Twentieth century cities, particularly their suburban and exurban perimeters, were constructed around the automobile. The cities of the twenty-first century will have to be designed around much more effective public transit. Greater urban density and public transit are essential to the green economy of the future.

Building a new economy around the principle of equity for the diverse elements of the Canadian population including first nations peoples, immigrants, and women can create full employment. It can effectively grapple with the plight of those in the working class who have been losing full time jobs.

Canadians have made vast and successful adaptations in the past to their socio-economic system. Today’s change, in which the young are bound to play a leading role, will require making capital work for people rather than the other way around. Among other things that necessitates the rejection of trade deals such as NAFTA that have much more to do with the privileges of corporations than the free exchange of goods and services.

In Europe and even in the United States, effective political voices have taken up the cause of a new politics. So far, in Canada, while the conditions exist for new movements with transformative political programs, no political party has laid claim to this terrain, and that includes the NDP. Politics abhors a vacuum. If existing institutions fail to fill the void, new institutions, as has happened in other countries will take their place.